Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Planning Your Trip: Shooting High Quality Footage

"My video camera sat on a nearby bureau, its blank eye a baleful reminder of my idiot pledge to film a documentary of the trip. I had bought a small consumer model that might escape scrutiny in a country where filming for broadcast still required a host of permits and permissions, each with its accompanying bribes and week-long delays. Somehow, my footage would have to be so spectacular that it made up for its shortfalls in technical quality. The whole idea was ludicrous and made me want to do nothing more than crawl back under my sweat-soaked sheets and sink back into another dream of home.

One step at a time. Even so, I was overwhelmed."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Before I left for Vietnam I called up a friend of mine and asked him how to turn my new camera on and what to do with it then. He gave me a few rules never to break. I thought I'd pass on the favor.
  1. your shots should be at least 10-15 seconds long. Short shots are useless, no matter how great they are.
  2. Make sure your shots have a head and a tail. That means when the elephant walks out of your viewfinder, count to three before turning the camera off. Turn the camera on three seconds before he walks in.
  3. Use a tripod whenever possible. If there is so much action that you can't capture it and still be on a tripod, you'll probably be okay without one. If you're too lazy to pull the tripod out on a scenic, don't bother taking the shot.
  4. Don't pan across a scenic. The only time you should be moving the camera is if you are following action. Very few documentaries have scenic pans (and if they do they are certainly using fluid heads)
  5. Similarly, very few documentaries show a lot of zooming. Most of the time they do a set shot and then cut straight to a close up. Of course you, the cameraperson, will have to zoom between these two cuts, but the important shots are the ones at both ends, not the zoom in the middle.
  6. You can NEVER have enough close-ups.
  7. You are telling a story visually. Try to figure out what the most important moments are and then make sure you capture them on tape. Set up for it in advance if you can. (I have managed to tape every possible angle of a tree getting cut down and then missed the shot of the tree falling).
  8. Do not smoke while shooting. No matter which way the wind is blowing, smoke will drift in front of your lens.
  9. whatever you are muttering while you film will be captured for posterity, particularly if you are cursing.
  10. Deliberately check your horizon with every shot. It's amazing how crooked it can be without your noticing.
  11. Glance at the record light indicator after you hit the "record" button. Then glance at it again after you hit "stop".
  12. Get used to running your eye over the information in the viewfinder before you start taping. That way you'll notice if you've accidentally hit that idiot "time and date" stamp just before filming the once-in-a-lifetime bull run in Madrid...
  13. Find a traveling companion who is willing to shoot some footage of you every once in a while (this may not be as easy as it sounds...). You are the voice that tells the story - the viewer will need to be able to place you in the scene from time to time.
And the most important tip - try to give the imaginary editor in the cutting room as many choices as possible. If you are videotaping a procession, capture it from all angles - the set shot, from the second floor and from ankle height, from the front and back and side, moving along with it and stationary, close-ups of hands and feet and instruments and faces (and anything else that might be remotely interesting), spectator reaction... The more choices you give yourself in the field, the less time you'll spend in the editing room watching your executive producer rock back and forth with his head in his hands, moaning, "what do you mean you didn't get that shot?"


If you are in a third world country then there will be people around you all the time. In most of those lovely, serene shots I took of Vietnam there were thirty onlookers standing behind me. I often drew lines in the ground with my toe and asked people not to step over them until I was done.

If you leave a camera on a tripod unattended, it will be knocked over within seconds. Always stay within rescuing distance.

The best way to film "natural" sequences is to work in a pair. One person becomes the "entertainer" - so appealing to the crowd that he/she absorbs everyone's attention. This allows the other person to wander around unobtrusively and film. If you don't do something like this you will end up with hours of footage of people staring into the camera.

Midday lighting in the tropics is very hard for the best of cameras to deal with. Use a polarizer, a neutral density filter, and consider filming when the sun is a little more friendly.

Keep that other eye open. Don't ever be so involved in your viewfinder that you don't see something coming at you from the side.

"I'd thought it woild be impossible to shoot a documentary without someone along to help me film, but I was wrong. The camera gradually became a part of my life and I learned to see the world through its lens. I discovered those few precious moments at the end of the day, when the sun turns the air to liquid gold and even the dullest colors seem to glow with an unearthly light. I learned how to follow action, and capture details, and sense that peculiar, restless moment in a crowd when something is about to happen. And I learned to recognize when the camera had no place in a conversation or an intimate event, and to put it away without regret. I had yet to see a single moment of the footage I had already shot, but as time went on I worried less and less about how it would all turn out. The very act of waiting for that perfect morning light or watching for a child's smile had already burned the image into my memory. And who was I kidding, anyway? I wasn't doing it for anyone else. I was doing it for me."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam